October 11 is National Coming Out Day. (We’ve also got World Mental Health Day on October 10 and, on October 14, the forty fifth anniversary of Anita Bryant, singer and notorious homophobe, getting hit in the face with a pie.) National Coming Out Day is sort of contemporary take on second wave feminism’s mantra “the personal is political” It began in 1988 with the idea that coming out, or being out, is the most basic form of queer activism that one can do.
My Own Coming Out
I think of my own coming out. Nearly thirty years ago. I still remember how much that felt like a radical act. I knew I was breaking rules that I had been expected to follow. It certainly felt dangerous and, indeed, radical in some ways. It was also necessary. I’d spent almost a decade doing everything I could to suppress the feelings I was having. It was time for me to give up the well-rehearsed scripts I’d created to try and shame myself out of same gender attraction.
As frightening as it was to acknowledge the feelings, to admit that there was no way for me to defeat them, it was more frightening to live with the thought that I was going to have to keep hiding them for the rest of my life. Not only frightening but tiring. If you want to know why people come out as queer–whether they’re bi like me or gay or trans or anything else–we’re just tired of putting up the front. Yes it’s more dangerous to be out. Yes there are risks. And yes we are afraid of blowing up our relationships with toxic but steady family members. But at the end of the day, it’s just no longer worth the effort for us. And so we come out.
I’ve written about the how much I would have benefited from queer role models when I was growing up as a deeply closeted queer kid. And in a year when we’ve confronted Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and their Stop Woke Act, I’ve been thinking about the things I wish I could have known when I was younger.
Letters to a Young Bisexual
In Letters to a Young Poet, in a letter dated April 23, 1903, Rainer Maria Wilke wrote:
Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentations, discussions, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing.
Trusting myself has long been a challenge, but when I was questioning the very definition of myself, it was nearly impossible to have any faith in the answers I found.
And so, taking inspiration from Rilke, and stirring it together with my own reflections, on my queer life, I’ve written a few notes to my younger self. It’s a chance for me to think about things I wish I’d been told or wish I’d known when I was a closeted teenager. Things I might have learned if I’d had the kind of queer role models I needed, the kind that I’m trying to be.
Advice to my Younger Self
- Hearing yourself come out the first time is hard. It’s not the only time it will be hard. And you’ll have to do it over and over and over again to different people, at different times and in different ways. Sometimes people will take it well. Other times they won’t. Those times will hurt, but you will learn to live with them. Furthermore, even if your queerness isn’t a big deal to the people you’re telling, doing it is still a big deal to come out. It takes a lot of bravery to tell someone, especially when you don’t know how they might react.
- People will have a hard time understanding the idea that you aren’t attracted to only one gender. They’ll also have a hard time understanding that your attraction isn’t 50/50–equally attracted to men and women. You don’t have to explain your expansive views on gender or the realities of bisexuality if you don’t want to. In fact, it may be helpful not to explain it at all.
- There will be times when it’s really important to come out. There will be times when it will feel important but you’ll still feel unsafe, so you decide not to. Your safety, both physical and emotional needs come first. You are not responsible for changing the minds of every person you meet about queer people.
- There are people who will support you even if you don’t know that they are supporting you. You’ll come out to them and never talk about it again, but years later, they’ll support you in ways you can’t imagine now.
- There will be a night that you come home with someone else’s lipstick smeared on your lips. You won’t know how long it’s been there, just that the color is not one you wear. You’ll see it in the mirror when you’re getting ready for bed. Whenever you question your queerness, whenever you feel detatched or separated from your queer community, think of that night, of that woman, and be assured that you’re queer enough.
- You will learn to tell the difference between fear and discretion as you talk to people.. You will learn how to tell just enough of the truth to get by when you need to. It will hurt that you cannot be your whole self sometimes. Honor that pain. Cherish the times when you can be your authentic self.
- It will not be easy to figure out how your queer identity fits in with the rest of your labels–the ones you’re already aware of now like Jew or New Yorker, and the ones that you can’t yet imagine, like Mom. You are a complex puzzle and so is everyone around you. Let queerness (and all of your other identities) be pieces of who you are, not the one thing that defines you. Let yourself grow into a whole, authentic person and live the most joyful life that you can.
- Your label is not permanent. It will change over time. It’s okay to be unsure and confused sometimes, too. You’ll find that your interest in other people varies, and that different times will have you seeking different things. The gender of your (potential) partner does not define you–you’re still queer as a football bat no matter what. And even when your relationships are straight-passing, even when you’ve got a straight partner, they’re still queer relationships because you’re involved.
- There will be joy in celebrating your queerness. Pride, whether you celebrate for a day, a week or an entire month will remind you of the many ways you’re connected to other people in the world. There will also be tragedy. Not just big stories like AIDS or the death of Matthew Shepard. The incredible joy and deep sadness will mark milestones in your life as a queer person. Don’t forget to honor and enjoy the everyday experiences. The nights you spent dancing in clubs with friends. Hanging out at the bookstore or in Dupont Circle. Weekly outings to dollar drink night at Trumpets or out for coffee with friends. Those moments fill in the spaces between the earth-shattering ones, and those are the moments where you will learn so much about yourself and the people around you.
- Things will happen that make you want to retreat into an almost-exclusively queer world. You will feel safer in queer spaces, and that makes sense. Don’t close yourself off from the non-queer world or you will miss out on many things. Build yourself a community of love and support and let your guard down sometimes so that you can let people in. Some of the people you felt least certain about letting in will turn out to be the ones that change you the most.
- You are lovable. You are loved. You deserve to be happy. You will find people who you belong with, who lift you up and who move you forward. People who will make sure you know that you should take up space and that your wants and needs are important. People who love you because of, not in spite of your quirks. Love them back. Put all the love you can into the world and some of it will come back.
Some Things are Particular to Queer People; Some Advice is More Universal
There are some things that every kid needs to hear. Queer, not queer, still figuring things out, they’re words I wish we could all take into adulthood.
You don’t need to hide yourself to avoid disappointing other people. It’s their responsibility to manage their feelings and reactions not yours to prevent them from happening.
Don’t get hung up on seeking validation from some people, no matter how important it seems. It will never happen the way you need or want it to. Put the energy into living your best life and not pleasing them. You will be happier, healthier and a better person overall if you let that go.
And as I think about World Mental Health Day and National Coming Out Day I hope you know how valuable you are to this world. You matter. And if you’ve got a chance to remind someone, kid or adult about that, help them to remember, too. They just might hold onto it when they have one of those days when it’s easy to forget.